Meeting Report: The Names of Rheged

Date: 
2 December 2011
Occasion: 
James Williams Lecture
Speaker(s): 
Professor Andrew Breeze

The December meeting of Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society was very special for two reasons. It was the James Williams Memorial Lecture, held in memory of the Society's late and much-revered, long-serving senior editor. Secondly Dr Andrew Breeze has had research papers published in the Society's Transactions, through which he communicated with James; he willingly agreed to come from Pamplona, Spain, to deliver his illustrated talk, entitled The Names of Rheged. It will be published in full in the Transactions at a later date.

The territory of Rheged is often mentioned in the earliest Welsh poems, which derive from originals composed in the related Cumbric language of North Britain in the sixth and seventh centuries. Rheged is usually located in the region around Carlisle, and was ruled by Urien, addressed by the bard Taliesin as a munificent hero and the scourge of the English invader.

Yet scholars have always had difficulty agreeing on the whereabouts of Rheged and the meaning of its name. Recent analysis of places mentioned in the poems of Taliesin and other early bards allows some progress on the matter. It offers these conclusions. Urien's domains stretched as far north as Ayr and as far east as north Yorkshire. The first would be the Aeron of his poems (the West Riding's river Aire can be ruled out), the second would be Yrechwydd, the region bordering the Echwydd (meaning 'fresh water') of the marshes between York and the Humber.

Yet his court was surely not at Carlisle, as often supposed. Carlisle is never mentioned in the early poems, and archaeologists have found no evidence for occupation there in the decades about AD 600. Other place-names in the poems point rather to south Cumbria as the focus of political life in this period, with references to a magnificent court at Rossed or Rossett, west of Ambleside; hunting by the Lodore Falls on the Derwent; and clashes with Pictish and English invaders by the rivers Winster and Lyvennet of south-east Cumbria.

Further research on toponyms in this poetry will probably confirm arguments for the English Lake District as being the core of the ancient British kingdom of Rheged.

There followed a period of lively and searching questions, fielded dexterously by Dr Breeze and which gave scope to the breadth of knowledge of this interesting and scholarly university philologist and lecturer.